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Phoenix Forward

5 ways “fight or flight” shapes your decisions

Stress puts you in survival mode

What do a prehistoric caveman and a modern hedge fund manager have in common? Thanks to thousands of years’ worth of evolutionary biology, their bodies react to impending threats — whether a charging saber-toothed tiger or a collapsing stock market — in similar ways. When humans prepare to stand and fight or flee a scene, their adrenaline surges and their heart rate jumps.

This flight-or-flight instinct, courtesy of our nervous systems, helped early humans survive. Today, though, it can be a stumbling block when you face deadlines or disagreements. Here are five ways this primitive urge can impact your day-to-day decision-making:

1. You feel confused.

“When the fight-or-flight response is triggered, everything surrounding us is perceived as a threat, and we cannot think or act rationally,” says Shameema Sarker, PhD, a molecular biologist and area chair for the University of Phoenix College of Natural Sciences. Muddled thoughts yield illogical or extreme decisions. Sarker points to rogue financial trading as one example.

2. You become paranoid.

Social situations such as public speaking or tense discussion can set off a fight-or-flight reaction, notes Benjamin Lewin, a middle school science teacher and former clinical researcher who teaches health courses in the College of Natural Sciences. Other people become part of the perceived threat, so even an innocuous email or off-the-cuff remark can make you wary. The drive to act quickly, paired with this distrust, can prompt hasty replies or knee-jerk decisions.

3. You run for cover.

“When a person is in a fight-or-flight situation, the first response is to get out of the situation intact,” Lewin explains. This compulsion can lead people to lie about their behavior or actions as a means of escape, he says.

4. You become overemotional.

A stress response unleashes strong emotions along with adrenaline, Sarker says. “These can include being impulsive, apprehensive, jittery or bad-tempered,” she explains, all of which can impair decision-making.

5. You can become more effective.

Although these physiological effects can derail us, Sarker sees some potential benefits to them. If you’re aware of how the stress response affects your perceptions, you can use it to your advantage. “We can harness the energy from our fight-or-flight response to use it in a more productive way,” she observes.

“Imagine how the performance of two competitive sports teams would suffer if the [fight-or-flight] response wasn’t triggered,” Sarker says, “and how unproductive you would be if you didn’t feel stressed out about an approaching deadline.”